There was a collective look of curiosity and slight apprehension as a group of elderly north Tulsa residents stepped off the bus and into the Supermercados Morelos at 1515 N. Harvard Ave.
Few were familiar with the Hispanic grocery store that is one of the closest options for fresh foods for those living in an area of town labeled a food desert — defined as being a low-income area a mile or more away from a supermarket.
Once inside the store, the group was given a tour — and samples of sweet treats made in-house — in an effort to help familiarize them with some of the differences between a Hispanic market and what they might be more accustomed to.
“I will try a lot of these things because they look delicious,” said Sarah Gill. “I think I’m going to start spicing up my dinners.”
Gill was part of a group of residents participating in an INCOG-led effort to address food deserts in north Tulsa.
The Indian Nations Council of Governments recently developed the Creating Access to Nutrition, or CAN, plan.
At its core, the plan is an effort to use alternative methods of transportation to eliminate that barrier between elderly and adults with disabilities and their access to food.
The group on Tuesday was participating in a “travel training,” where groups use buses from Morton Comprehensive Health Services to travel to the five grocery stores that are closest to where they live to learn about transportation options and what the stores have to offer.
Gill usually has her grandchild take her to the grocery store once a month but said with the new program she hopes to shop more frequently.
“Not everyone has that. I thank God for that,” she said.
The CAN Plan
The initial phase of the program was funded through a $20,000 grant from the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center.
During that phase, INCOG staff worked with several community partners to devise a plan to use alternative forms of transportation to connect seniors and adults with disabilities to nearby grocery options.
The plan focuses on a 9-square-mile radius bounded by Apache Street to Archer Street and 33rd West Avenue to Lewis Avenue.
The area, in addition to having a large population of seniors and adults with disabilities, has a high percentage of minorities and people living in poverty.
“Many of them are on a fixed income and receive SNAP benefits and that’s it. So they are shopping once or twice a month and are having to stock up on shelf-stable items that won’t spoil,” said Regan McManus, senior planner for the INCOG Area Agency on Aging. “With that, you get a lot of poor food choices because you are getting a lot of processed items, high-starch and high-carb items that can lead to health complications.”
Many of those in the target area already have chronic health conditions and are worsening those conditions with an unhealthy diet.
Nearly 1,200 residents in the target area responded to a survey about their shopping habits and the factors that shape those habits during the initial phase.
The response wasn’t surprising.
“Of course the first thing they want is a grocery store in their area. They want more access to low-cost, or no-cost, transportation. They want safe, healthy options to shop at because now they only have convenience stores and discount stores and it’s really limited what you can buy there as far as nutritious food,” McManus said.
Providing a lift
Through that discovery process, the group determined 13 solutions for addressing food deserts that should be able to be replicated in other areas and received a follow-up grant worth $70,000 to implement two of those solutions.
One solution is the travel training and exposure to area grocery stores.
The second is a ride-share program where INCOG will work with Uber to provide transportation to select grocery stores and farmers markets.
The program runs through August, and the hope is to secure additional funding and expand into other food deserts in north and east Tulsa.
“We have a huge transportation demand,” McManus said.
The study found that some of those with their own vehicle are either cognizant they won’t be able to drive much longer or they are having a hard time maintaining their vehicle or affording gas to get to the store.
“So even though they have a vehicle, it is still difficult at times to get places,” McManus said.
Sue Grant, information and assistance specialist with INCOG, will be involved with scheduling the ride-sharing aspect of the program.
She said she’s experienced the problem firsthand.
“I’ve lived in north Tulsa, and there wasn’t a viable grocery store,” she said. “This will be a great way to provide seniors a way to go to the store on demand without having to wait for a bus, making it so much easier.”
One of the most popular grocery routes, according to the survey, is a bus route that goes from north Tulsa to the Walmart at 81st Street and Lewis Avenue in south Tulsa.
The hour-long trip each way is often the most convenient route because there is no bus transfer and pulls up basically to the front of the store.
Tulsa Transit put together a map for residents in the target area showing them which buses to take to get to the five closest grocery stores.
“That is the most affordable option, not the easiest, and you are limited to the number of bags you can carry on,” McManus said. “We hope that by using the ride share, then they can go when they want and won’t have to wait on a bus or walk a mile to a bus stop.”
The ride-share program will also eliminate the bag issue.
“For this population and generation, this is a whole new ball game for them. But the more we talk about it, the more they are becoming at ease,” McManus said.
By spending their grocery dollars in the stores in or nearby their community, the residents in the target area will be helping to infuse money in their local economy.
“They feel like in their community, they are left behind, that funds from the city go to other areas of the city and they are left up there with nothing,” McManus said. “They feel like there have been some stores in the past, but they felt dirty or unsafe.”
Francisco Ibarra, president of Supermercados Morelos and a member of the CAN Plan advisory board, said he is happy to be a part of this effort to help offset the difficulties people who live in food deserts have when it comes to getting fresh foods.
“The majority of our products are basic needs, and we believe every person should have access to these products. To do so, we are glad that the CAN project is assisting to eradicate these food deserts by providing transportation and helping us make these basic food necessities accessible to everyone,” he said.
“The CAN project is not only helping the elderly get access to more food, it is also promoting jobs and revitalizing the commercial area,” Ibarra said.